BRETT HUMPHREYS reviews The Case of Alan Turing: The Extraordinary and Tragic Story of the Legendary Codebreaker by Éric Liberge (illustrations) and Arnaud Delalande (text), translated by David Homel (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016, hardback, 287mm x 231mm, 101 pages)
Few people will be familiar with the semi-detached Victorian house on the outskirts of Wilmslow where Alan Turing lived from the summer of 1950 until his death in June 1954. So it’s a sign of attention to detail that The Case of Alan Turing begins with a drawing of the actual house rather than just some generic representation of a house.
This graphic novel in comic strip format was first published in French as Le Cas Alan Turing: Histoire Extraordinaire et Tragique d’un Génie in 2015. The term “comic strip” hardly does justice to the quality of the artwork. People, buildings and scenes are generally realistically drawn from photographs, some in meticulous detail, including a magnificent aerial view of the Bletchley Park Mansion complex
Iconic buildings such as King’s College Chapel in Cambridge and the facade of the Mansion at Bletchley Park are immediately recognisable, and many less familiar images can be traced to original photographs available online.
There are some similarities to the 2014 film The Imitation Game. Firstly the story focuses primarily on the early years of the Second World War and specifically the decryption of the Enigma ciphers at Bletchley Park.
This accounts for around half of the book. Secondly, the main subplots concern Alan Turing’s relationships with his school friend Christopher Morcom, his wartime colleague Joan Clarke, and his later Manchester friend Arnold Murray and their subsequent prosecution for “gross indecency”.
Unlike the film, the book does, however, manage to weave in references to other aspects of Turing’s life. Thirdly, the narration is not chronological but jumps backwards and forwards in time.
According to the authors in a recent interview, they were about halfway through their work on the book when The Imitation Game was released in November 2014, but signs of the film’s influence are evident. The name “Bletchley Radio Manufacturing” on the main entrance to Bletchley Park is an invention of the film, for example.
Fortunately the book is more rigorous in its approach to historicity than the film, which took a good deal of flak for its distortions and inventions, including its fictional link between Alan Turing and the Soviet spy John Cairncross, and its portrayal of Alastair Denniston, the head of Bletchley Park, as hostile to Turing’s work when in reality he was supportive.
A recent study has reinforced this view with a scene-by-scene analysis of the accuracy of 14 Oscar contenders that purport to depict real-life stories. The Imitation Game came last by a long way.
By contrast, the biographical details in The Case of Alan Turing are largely accurate, although there are occasional slips, as when Turing’s famous cycle ride from Southampton at the start of the 1926 General Strike takes him to Westcott School near Oxford instead of Sherborne School in Dorset (where he was assigned to Westcott House, hence the confusion).
Despite the claim in publicity for the book that the details of Turing’s achievements were newly discovered in 2012, essentially all the known factual information presented about his life comes from the seminal biography by Andrew Hodges first published in 1983.
Most of the people and events in the story are real. The main exception is “Agent Morris”, who personifies the influence of the secret services in Turing’s life, recruiting him into codebreaking before the war and spying on him after it. There are added scenes, notably those involving Agent Morris, but they are there as surrogates for missing pieces of the jigsaw and not just to beef up the drama as in the film. However, the storyteller does sometimes condense or omit things for the sake of brevity.
For example, on showing Turing round Bletchley Park, Denniston tells him (and us) that 7,000 people live and work there. The number is true of later years (though many didn’t live on the site) but far from true when Turing first arrived at the start of the war.
Sara Turing, Alan Turing’s mother, enigmatically remarked in her 1959 biography that “Taken all round he presents a strange study in light and shade.” The phrase “study in light and shade” aptly describes the present book.
It begins and ends on the night of his death, June 7, 1954, which is naturally portrayed as dark and foreboding. Much of the intervening narrative is drawn in sombre colours, especially the Bletchley scenes – perhaps symbolising the secrecy that shrouded the whole operation there. Lighter shades are mainly reserved for reveries and flashbacks, and also the intriguing collages of wartime images sprinkled through the story.
The book poses a little enigma of its own. In the opening scene Alan Turing is surprised to see a shadowy figure appear in his bedroom. The shadowy figure holds out an apple and urges him to “dip the apple in the brew”, words from the Disney animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which had fascinated him since he first saw it in Cambridge in 1938. Who is the shadowy figure? In true whodunit tradition, the answer is revealed at the end.
A coda to the story takes us forward to the founding of Apple Computer, Inc in 1977, and the urban legend that the company’s famous logo was based on Alan Turing’s apple. Sadly this is untrue, as Rob Janoff, the designer of the logo, has repeatedly explained. The book ends with a short essay on the history of cryptography by Bruno Fuligni.
Read this book for its interest not just as an introduction to Alan Turing’s life – particularly his involvement in the Enigma codebreaking – but also for its speculative exploration of what might have been going on inside his head. Then read it again to appreciate the full detail and subtle juxtapositions of the imagery.